Frontline care workers are undervalued

New Orleans   In the “time of the virus,” I talked to Jackie Dartz, a member of the Local 100 United Labor Unions executive board and longtime steward at LARC, the Lafayette Association of Retarded Citizens, about direct care workers that were at the frontlines about their preparations for the covid-19 pandemic on Wade’s World. I wanted to know if there was anything special they were doing to prepare, and how they would handle this situation. Jackie has worked at LARC for thirty-six years where she is both a van driver and a direct care worker and instructor for various clients.

At one level she was reassuring about the preparations for this very vulnerable population. She said they were always attentive to hygiene and the possibilities of viral infections with this susceptible population. Individual care workers who support clients in independent living conditions are required to also be hyper vigilant.

Is it enough? Well, that was a harder question, because on the frontlines of direct care, no one really knows in a unique situation like this one, what would constitute enough.

Were there special instructions they were getting from their employer and supervisors? Certainly, she said that everyone was aware of these issues and had doubled down on the usual procedures, but at the point we talked there were no cases in the Lafayette area, so in many ways both workers and bosses were crossing their fingers.

We had been bargaining a renewal of the union contract earlier in that week. We knew its benefits and its limits. We had an extended argument about wage freezes that the nonprofit was proposing for another year of the contract, because their reimbursement rate had not improved. One member of the committee had given an impassioned plea to management about how hard the work was, how critical to the clients, and how undervalued workers were when they looked at their wages.

They aren’t alone. We represent nursing home workers in various places of the state, especially north Louisiana in Shreveport. We reached out for them in recent weeks to review health and safety procedures. In nursing homes, wages have risen as labor supply has tightened. Certification is required. Home residents are thus far the most vulnerable population because of general age and health. Not enough is being done, though everyone was willing to meet and talk.

None of our contracts include stipulations for either hazard pay if workers are deemed essential and have to report to work or robust enough paid leave time if workers are forced to quarantine. Most care workers are also in the gap of health care coverage. Because their employers are large enough they have to offer health insurance, but the deductibles and monthly rates are exorbitant, meaning that often no one buys the program, while they are also barred from the best provisions of the Affordable Care Act because of the employers’ claim of nominal insurance.

These workers are vital, but they are at risk and, relatively speaking, as our member stood up and said to the LARC team, they are “paid poverty wages.” They are working at the sharp edge of life and death, but their own lives are purchased cheaply while they are forced to risk everything to care for others.

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